WASHINGTON—While Democrats and Republicans are locked in a partisan impeachment battle in the nation’s capital, the country at the center of the debate, Ukraine, is locked in a decadeslong fight for its survival and its future. The politicization of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine as a result of impeachment could make matters worse for an already struggling country.
Ukraine declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and made faltering steps toward a pro-democracy, pro-Western government. But internal dissent and outside pressure have held it back. As the country shook off communist rule, it lurched into crony capitalism: Government officials sold off state-owned industries to wealthy oligarchs who were their friends or family members. Ukraine has struggled ever since with corruption and entrenched poverty.
But in many ways, Ukraine’s greatest threat lies outside: an embittered Russian government that has never stopped viewing Ukraine as a necessary part of its empire. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in eastern Ukraine, in what would be the most direct conflict between East and West since the Cold War. The Obama administration and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia but did not offer military support or lethal weapons to Ukraine.
Despite international backlash, Russia kept meddling in Ukrainian affairs. It continues to support, politically and with weapons, an effort in 2014 by Russian separatists to form a semi-autonomous region in the eastern part of the country. The ongoing conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives and led to the displacement of more than 1.5 million people.
Over the summer, the Trump administration blocked nearly $400 million in aid earmarked to reinforce the Ukrainian military. Congress had approved the aid in its 2019 federal budget to reinforce Ukrainian forces with weapons and U.S. training and advice.
On Sept. 11, the White House reversed course and began to release the money. In between, an anonymous administration official filed a whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump, and Congress began an impeachment inquiry.
The question became whether the president withheld the aid to pressure Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to undertake investigations into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of one of Trump’s most formidable rivals for the presidency in 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden. Soon, Democrats and Republicans were tossing accusations across the aisle, with Ukraine as the political football. Democrats accused the president of leveraging the aid to advance his own domestic political interests. Republicans argued that Trump released the aid eventually and that he was rightly concerned about Ukrainian corruption.
A variety of experts say the battle in Congress oversimplifies or even misses the mark on the dire foreign policy situation in Ukraine.
Eric Fleury, an assistant professor of government and international relations at Connecticut College, said Ukraine is “in a crippled state right now. They have the troops of a far larger foreign power and their historical oppressor knocking on their door. … So this idea of military aid, especially, is for them a question of national survival.”
He added that Ukraine symbolizes the struggle between Western and Eastern civilizations.
“[The question] is whether Ukraine falls into the Russian orbit of authoritarian governance, ethnonationalism, of ethnicity being the determination of legitimacy rather than the rule of law,” Fleury said. “Russia wants to make absolutely sure [Ukraine] does not move in a more liberal, democratic, Western direction because in [Russin President Vladimir] Putin’s mind, that would be pointing a dagger straight into the heart of his regime.”
He noted that for Ukraine to become a model of Western values “right on Russia’s doorstep” would be a disaster for Putin.
Michael McKoy, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College, pointed out the problems associated with partisan politics infiltrating U.S. foreign policy.
“No country wants their security with the United States to be a partisan issue,” he said. “And now the Ukraine issue has become a partisan one. And what’s bad for Ukraine is good for Russia.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president has found himself between an anvil and a hammer. Zelensky has sought to highlight his country’s need while avoiding alienating either the White House or Democrats.
“We’re at war,” he said. “If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about quid pro quo.”